“Journalists aren’t nearly as interesting as they think they are,” David Eisenhower once said, a quote that Nora Ephron cited favorably in her final media column for Esquire in 1977. This was before Ephron became a movie director and screenwriter, and long before she wrote “Lucky Guy,” her play about the late tabloid columnist Mike McAlary. “Lucky Guy” is now opening at the Broadhurst starring Tom Hanks in his Broadway debut.
Ephron, whose play is being produced posthumously, obviously changed her mind about journalists, for “Lucky Guy” depicts New York City newspaper columnists and editors who find each other fascinating. Theatergoers are likely to find them less so.
That is why “Lucky Guy” is luckiest in having snagged Tom Hanks to return to the stage after an absence of decades. He is certainly the reason why this script made it to Broadway. The production is also lucky to have George C. Wolfe directing, for he almost redeems what is otherwise a largely thin, plodding endeavor full of boozy sentimentality. He does this by injecting some clever stage business and a few well-orchestrated moments — and by having hired a first-rate cast.
“Lucky Guy” is more or less a recitation of McAlary’s career, his biggest scoops and blunders as a journalist who worked as a reporter and then a columnist (eventually the highest-paid newspaper columnist in the country) for New York Newsday, the Daily News, and the New York Post – New York City’s tabloid newspapers – before he died from cancer in 1998 at age 41.
I worked on the staffs of both New York Newsday and the Daily News at around the same time – and even wrote freelance for the New York Post – and I knew or at least met many of the people who have been turned into real-named characters in “Lucky Guy.” I also had dinner once with Nora Ephron, who was herself a tabloid journalist long ago — a staff writer for the New York Post in her early twenties — but, as the daughter of famous Hollywood screenwriters, she was clearly destined for something else. It would be hard even for strangers to remain unmoved by the brave way both the real-life McAlary and Ephron lived in the face of death (Read How My Mother Planned to Outwork Death, by Jacob Bernstein in the New York Times Magazine about Ephron, who died of cancer last June at age 71.)
Yet fond memories, admiration or sympathy do not necessarily translate into compelling drama. My past gives me no special insight into the world presented on the stage, but I do recognize in “Lucky Guy” the kind of blinkered nostalgia and self-mythologizing that afflict journalists everywhere.
The play begins with a group of men singing in an Irish bar. These are the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, constantly-cussing colleagues of Mike McAlary, who form a syncopated, regular-guy Greek chorus for the next two hours. They narrate McAlary’s story, each of them supposedly bringing a distinct personality and individual take on the tale — debating McAlary’s controversial actions and disagreeing on his motives. But most of them are difficult to distinguish from one another, and their allegedly divergent viewpoints don’t sound all that different. “Lucky Guy” is no Rashomon.
When we first meet McAlary (Hanks), he too narrates his story for us, describing himself as “zealous, hard-working, true blue. Police reporter…All I ever wanted to be was a police reporter in New York City.” We learn that he was awed and envious of columnist Jimmy Breslin — and he sets out to be the next Jimmy Breslin. (Breslin himself is not presented as a character in “Lucky Guy,” as if it would be blasphemous to put into human form such a journalism god.)
We follow McAlary’s career from his scoops at New York Newsday – he interviewed the boyfriend of a 19-year-old who was killed by a poisoned Tylenol pill; he exposed a major scandal of drug-dealing cops in the 77th police precinct – through his rise to columnist at the Daily News, his hiring away by the Post, the stories he got wrong (a rape he insisted was a hoax, based on mistaken information from police sources), his questionable wheeling-dealing, a serious car accident, his terminal illness. It is only within the last 15 minutes that we learn of his most famous scoop, the sexual torture by rogue police of the Haitian immigrant Abner Louima (portrayed in a single scene, at a hospital bedside, by Stephen Tyrone Williams), which McAlary got up from his own sick-bed to report, and which won him the Pulitzer Prize not long before he died..
(Click on any photograph below to see it enlarged in a slide show)
“Lucky Guy” is, remarkably, the second play I’ve reviewed about Mike McAlary. The first, “The Wood,” by Dan Klores, at Rattlestick in 2011, was downright inept. But the two plays share a few problems. As I wrote about “The Wood,” “Lucky Guy” pretends to present both a primer about journalism and a glimpse into the complexities of life in New York City in the hard-luck 1980’s, but it manages instead to relegate both to backdrops, turning the reporter getting the stories into the only important story. The main way the audience learns what it was like in New York City at that time is scenic designer David Rockwell’s curtain – an artful collage of graffiti, sayings like “Life is Crack,” and tabloid logos – as well as brief snippets of actual TV news reports and press conferences from the time projected onto various screens. Many of the stories are reduced to projected headlines and brief remarks from a narrator or two.
There are some exchanges that begin to reach for something deeper. For example, McAlary and one of his editors John Cotter (the always excellent Peter Gerety), engage in a nearly philosophical debate about the nature of facts and storytelling: “You’re born, you die. Everything in between is subject to interpretation,” Cotter says. But “Lucky Guy” would have been a better play had these snippets of conversation been incorporated with more craft into the plot, rather than offered up in what feels like mini talk-backs, staged as part of the show rather than after it.
“Lucky Guy” has a cast of 14, all of them (like the characters they are playing) no-nonsense pros. Two are women. Scattered throughout the play are scenes with McAlary’s wife Alice (Maura Tierney). Sometimes she argues with him for staying out late; sometimes she bucks up her man when he doubts himself. Deirdre Lovejoy portrays two characters, reporter Louise Imerman who competes in a man’s world by being more brusque and foul-mouthed than any of the men, and Debby Krenek, an editor who is shown as indecisive.
That a pioneering woman director like Ephron, co-author with her sister of the female-centric play “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” would deliver such a retrograde view of women might be baffling if it were not clear that “Lucky Guy” is an attempt to re-create the legendary (i.e. anachronistic) camaraderie of tough-guy reporters.
Even if “Lucky Guy” were less problematic, its central pleasure would still surely be the chance to see Tom Hanks on stage, where he is even more charming than on film. Near the beginning of the play, an editor tells him to relax. “It’s New York City; who can relax?” he replies. He then points to a specific member of the audience, and looks right at her. “Are you relaxed?” It is one of several such playful moments. Hanks does not have a monopoly on these — there is a funny running gag about how much everybody smokes, and a reference to class conflict that involves the audience (I don’t want to give either of these away) — but Hanks’ persona seems to invite them. Hanks is not just a charmer. It will come as no surprise to those who have seen him in such films as “Philadelphia,” “Apollo 13” and “Saving Private Ryan” that Hanks has some serious acting chops. When he walks across the stage using a walker (after McAlary’s car accident) it is a moment that is both persuasive and somehow riveting.
Hanks’ most consistently entertaining partner in the show is the outstanding Courtney B. Vance, as Hap Hairston, an editor with whom McAlary often butted heads. In a scene near the end of “Lucky Guy,” McAlary and Hairston, are in different hospitals, Hairston after open-heart surgery, McAlary in the first of the major operations for his cancer. McAlary calls Hairston, and suggests they both set their morphine pumps to the max. As they get high, their facial expressions are priceless.
“Journalism has lost its charm,” McAlary says, spaced out.
” It’s like my first wife,” Hairston groggily replies.
“How is it like your first wife?”
“I know I used to love her, but I can’t remember why.”
The scene is amusing; it’s almost touching. But even the appeal of Tom Hanks can only go so far in making palatable a show debuting in 2013 that has room for first-wife jokes.
at the Broadhurst
Written by Nora Ephron
Directed by George C. Wolfe, scenic design by David Rockwell, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, sound design by Scott Lehrer, projection design by batwin + robin productions
Cast: Tom Hanks, Maura Tierney, Courtney B Vance, Christopher McDonald, Peter Gerety, Peter Scolari, Michael Gaston, Dustyn Gulledge, Deirdre Lovejoy, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Richard Masur, Stephen Tyrone Williams
Running time: Two hours and 5 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission
Ticket prices: $87.00 – $152.00 Buy tickets
Lucky Guy is scheduled to run through June 16, 2013